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UPM ForMi® Interview at JEC 2013: Director Stefan Fors Talks about Thermoplastic-based Biocomposites

SpecialChem / Jul 8, 2013

Introduction

During the JEC Show in Paris, which took place on March 12 – 14, 2013, SpecialChem not only met with thermoset resin suppliers and processors, we also identified many companies supplying or processing thermoplastic-based composites. One of the newest companies identified in this market segment presented its high quality cellulose fibers reinforced thermoplastic-based biocomposites: UPM ForMi®, which is based on polypropylene. We met with Mr. Stefan Fors, Director for UPM ForMi®, who offered to further educate us on this new biocomposite and its development. He also explained how this material is already used on a commercial production scale for multiple applications.

SpecialChem: Can you tell us the historical background of UPM – The Biofore Company? What industries it is active in?

Mr. Fors: UPM is from the traditional Forest Industry. It is active in the paper industry and also develops and produces plywood and cellulose products. The UPM Company is more than 100-years old — managing its own forests, and therefore keeps a tight control on the raw materials: trees.

SpecialChem: You presented the UPM ForMi® materials at the JEC Composites Show in mid-March. Why did UPM choose to develop biocomposites?

Mr. Fors: The background of this strategic move is the declining paper consumption in Europe and North America. Asia is using more paper than ever, but overall, the paper industry is mature. We needed to create new growth paths, and there are many opportunities ahead of us thanks to the versatile uses of trees and tree-derived products. As an example, we are currently making biofuels and are also investigating the synthesis of biochemicals. And of course the UPM ForMi® biocomposites hopefully have a key role to play in the future of our company as well.

SpecialChem: It probably took a lot of time to evaluate how to enter the Plastics Industry as this is a new market for you. Can you tell us more about the UPM ForMi® development and its market launch?

Mr. Fors: In fact, we were very fast to enter the plastics industry. From concept to launch of UPM ForMi® product took us less than 18 months! From the very beginning we knew if we were successful, the market potential would be huge, and keep on growing. So we were confident when making our decisions all along the product development. Furthermore, we were very happy when reviewing our first quality test results on the developmental versions of the UPM ForMi®. This confirmed even further we were going into the right direction. This is why we were so fast to launch this product.

UPM ForMi® Granules
Fig: 1 UPM ForMi® Granules

SpecialChem: This is not the first time wood derived filler and fibers were used as additives in plastics. However the applications using such thermoplastic-based biocomposites are still in the niche use segments, which require rather low performance. We mainly see these biocomposites in single use applications and other low demanding consumer goods. How does the UPM ForMi® differentiate from other biocomposites, which have been launched more than a decade ago?

Mr. Fors: You're right — the idea itself is not new at all! But we use pure cellulose fibers, those used in the paper production processes. The previous biocomposites you are referring to were not able to go beyond a certain level of performance because of the use of wood and forest industry wastes. Therefore, performance always stayed at a limited level, which consequently makes higher performance applications unreachable for these products. UPM ForMi® is indeed very different. But having the right quality on raw materials is not enough to get high quality products. We also developed a new processing technology to compound the high quality cellulose fibers into the host resin. This process technology provides an excellent fiber dispersion result, so that you cannot even see the fibers on the surface of molded articles, even when using light colors. UPM ForMi® is definitely a new and different biocomposite, even for applications where surface appearance is critical.

SpecialChem: Today UPM ForMi® is a polypropylene-based biocomposite. Why did you choose polypropylene (PP), and what about future developments with other resins?

Mr. Fors: We selected PP because this is one of the most widely used thermoplastic materials. It can be found in almost any market, with or without fillers and fibers of any kind. The market potential is therefore high with PP. But we are working on other base resins. We think new UPM ForMi® grades could be quickly developed with polyethylene. This would make the benefits of this new biocomposite accessible to even more applications and brand owners.

Loudspeaker enclosures molded in UPM ForMi®

Fig: 2 Loudspeaker enclosures molded in UPM ForMi®
SpecialChem: What are the main benefits of UPM ForMi® compared to other composites? What are the key technical advantages you have seen in the first commercial successes?

Mr. Fors: There are multiple benefits, but based on what we saw with our validation partners and first customers we are very confident in the following benefits:
  • Adding high quality cellulose fibers allows for stiffer materials. If you compare the tensile modulus of a neat PP injection molding grade to our UPM ForMi® GP40 (standing for the 40% reinforced General Purpose grade), you jump from 1360MPa up to 3800Mpa PP based composite. Of course, cellulose fibers do not reinforce as much as short glass fibers (SGF). But on the other hand, SGF reinforced PP compounds do not have the same high quality surface finish. Furthermore these compounds do not have the same acoustic properties and vibration damping performances as UPM ForMi®.
  • UPM ForMi® exhibits excellent acoustic properties. The Finnish high-end loudspeaker brand Aurelia approved and now uses UPM ForMi® in its high quality speaker enclosures. The ForMi® biocomposite proved to bring an unbeaten sound reproduction performance vs. other plastic materials. The Aurelia Founder and CEO, Antti Louhivaara, confirmed the UPM ForMi® offered "substantially stronger components than traditional plastics", while having "excellent acoustic properties".
  • Loudspeaker enclosures molded in UPM ForMi®
    Fig: 3 Loudspeaker enclosures molded in UPM ForMi®
  • We also witnessed a strong success with our partner Genelec, the high quality brand owner of monitors for professional uses. UPM ForMi® has been tested by Genelec experts to withstand all the technical requirements of monitor enclosures. As stated by Siamäk Naghian, the Genelec CEO "We tested the UPM ForMi® acoustic properties for a long time and the results were consistently great".
  • On top of its excellent acoustic properties, we also noticed UPM ForMi® had a high vibration damping property compared to other polymeric composites. Therefore we foresee UPM ForMi® application in floor tiles. The inherently good thermal insulation performance of plastics compared to mineral floor covering solutions allow for energy consumption reduction, thanks to an increased thermal insulation of all types of floors.
  • UPM ForMi® reduces the carbon footprint of the finished goods. Depending on what UPM ForMi® grade you select, and depending on what plastic material you compare it to, a carbon footprint reduction of 30% up to 60% can be achieved. On top of this, and to help even further OEMs in reaching their environmental goals, UPM ForMi® uses cellulose fibers made from sustainably managed forests. UPM ForMi® has the FSC and PEFC certifications (standing for "Forest Stewardship Council" and "Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification" respectively, which are the two largest international forest certification programs to date).
  • UPM ForMi® is approved for food contact uses in Europe and also received the same approval from the American FDA. It is also approved for uses in toys in Europe, and it complies with the European REACH regulation.
Furniture feet molded in UPM ForMi®, which replaces the previously used chipboard material

Fig: 4 Furniture feet molded in UPM ForMi®, which replaces the previously used chipboard material

SpecialChem: To continue on the environmental attributes of UPM ForMi® do you have an application example in which this new biocomposite made the difference with the previously used materials thanks to its good environmental performance?

Mr. Fors: Furniture manufacturers have adopted UPM ForMi® because they face growing concerns on indoor air quality (IAQ). Nowadays furniture widely uses chipboard leading to formaldehyde emissions, among other unwanted volatile organic compounds. UPM ForMi® does not emit such gases at all, but it is stiff enough to replace structural furniture parts, such as adjustable furniture feet. On such applications it is obvious the mechanical requirements are critical, especially the creep resistance and compression modulus.

Puustelli Group Oy based in Finland successfully developed its new injection molded kitchen frames by using UPM ForMi® instead of chipboard. The manufacturing carbon footprint of the new kitchen frames is reduced by 35% up to 45% compared to previous chipboard components. But the environmental benefits do not solely lie on the suppression of formaldehyde emissions. Thanks to the new injection molded design, the total weight of furniture components is significantly reduced, leading to CO2 emissions cuts during logistic operations.

Kitchen frames using UPM ForMi® instead of the traditional chipboard solution. UPM ForMi® helps OEMs by increasing the indoor air quality (IAQ), which is a growing concern of NGO, consumer associations and some official safety agencies including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Fig: 5 Kitchen frames using UPM ForMi® instead of the traditional chipboard solution. UPM ForMi® helps OEMs by increasing the indoor air quality (IAQ), which is a growing concern of NGO, consumer associations and some official safety agencies including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Beside these environmental improvements vs. the previously used chipboard material, the new kitchen frames also proved to be more resistant to stress and moisture. Like any plastic materials UPM ForMi® also allows for increased design freedom: the Puustelli Group kitchen frames now feature ready-to-use holes for mounting purpose and all kinds of opening systems. There are no secondary operations needed for drilling these holes anymore. On a single application UPM ForMi® proved to bring multiple technical and economical advantages compared to the previous chipboard solution.

SpecialChem: The JEC Show also hosted one of your direct competitors, which seems to offer a high-quality cellulose fiber reinforced thermoplastic-based composite: Mondi presented its Fibromer® composites. What can you say on their presence? Do you think there is room for two (or even more) companies on this thermoplastic-based biocomposite market segment?

Mr. Fors: To be honest with you, I indeed think this is a good thing! We are not afraid of the competitive challenge, — in fact exactly the opposite — this is very good for the business landscape. We do not intend to have a monopolistic approach. Changing a material to evaluate and validate a totally new biocomposite is a huge effort. It takes time, money and qualified resources to make sure all the technical requirements are satisfied. It also takes commercial resources to establish long-term relationships with new suppliers. This is all but easy. So if you are the only one offering such innovative biocomposites, this adds even further to the challenge. OEMs do not want to solely rely on one supplier only. This is by far too risky, and the plastics industry history has already met such situations, which at the end were not stable. We have even seen suppliers stop the production and commercialization of some of their new materials, leaving OEMs without any ready-to-use alternative solutions. Having several suppliers of a new and innovative material is therefore very good to help these biocomposites find their place on the market. This is good for us too — it proves we are probably going into the right direction. If the future of these biocomposites were going to a dead-end, we would probably not have any competitors at all!

Mr. Fors, I thank you for your time and all these details on this innovative biocomposite!



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